In what is becoming a running theme, the latest Rick and Morty episode parodies two well-known franchises: the cult of superheroes in the Avengers films, and the gimmicks underpinning the Saw films. But those parodies serve as a backdrop to the greater drama, the destruction of Rick by his own hand.
Save for the first episode, the latest season of Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland's manic series has spent the majority of its time dovetailing between two arcs. The first has been a relentless parody of other pop culture, ranging from blockbuster flicks (such as Mad Max or Rambo) to the gore-filled Saw movies in the most recent episode. The second arc has been the gradual collapse of the family unit, resulting in Summer ramping up the sass by a factor of ten, Morty piss himself in class and Rick literally turning himself into a pickle to avoid sorting out issues with his family.
An undercurrent of the second arc has been Rick's position amongst all that. He's always been the most aggressive element of the Rick and Morty household, but with Jerry's departure he's also become the defacto leader of the unit. That's resulted in Morty more or less becoming the moral compass of each episode, and that's the driving element behind their latest adventure, where Morty cashes in an adventure card to convince Rick to help a band of galactic superheroes.
Called the Vindicators (the episode is also called Vindicators 3: The Return of Worldender), a fracture immediately opens between the Avengers-like crew and Rick. They're superheroes to Morty, which is why he forced Rick to respond to their distress signal in the first place. But to Rick, the Vindicators aren't special at all - and in a blackout drunken stupor, he sets up a chain of events that not only results in the death of Worldeater (the original catalyst for the mission) but the eventual death and destruction of the Vindicators themselves.
The third season has been going along this bent for a while, but Vindicators 3 continues to ram home Rick as a villain, rather than the chaotic neutral character creating the conflict that has made the series work thus far. It's often been funny, and it's often driven a lot of the series greatest moments, whether it's been battling with the Council of Ricks, or the Inception-like universe that powered Rick and Morty's spaceship.
But throughout season three, Rick has effectively a fan's fantasy: trouncing around the galaxy like a dick, with little to no repercussions. That's epitomised in the final trap Rick sets for the Vindicators: Morty sacrifices himself, believing that the only thing Morty secretly values is him and their relationship. But it ends up taking Morty on a tribute to Noob Noob, the janitor for the Vindicators who happens to laugh at all of Rick's jokes.
Morty matters just as much as propping up Rick's ego, and the acknowledgement of that fact is becoming one of the season's better running jokes. Morty's tolerance for his grandfather's bullshit is diminishing with each episode, and the way he cuts through drunken Rick's antics with a joke about Israel is probably one of the best moments in the season so far.
"In a way that has no point - you just babble about defence budgets and the United Nations and then you pass out," Morty reminds Rick, who immediately goes on the defensive and reminds everyone that he's really not an anti-Semite and that drunk Rick is actually "so supportive of Israel".
"Hey man, I'm not touching this," the superhero made up of a million ants replies.
It's a neat reminder of Rick and Morty at its best, but it doesn't stay there for long. And in that regard, Vindicators 3 is probably the weakest episode of the season by a comfortable margin. It achieves little beyond reminding the audience that Rick is a titantic arsehole, and at this stage the only being capable of defeating Rick is himself now that the Council of Ricks and the galactic federation are done with.
Sooner or later, the series will have to answer: does Rick collapse under the weight of his own flaws, or is it an external force that brings Rick undone? The likely scenario is that at some stage, driven no doubt by Morty's growing apathy, the family cuts ties with Rick once more.
Their reunion was the catalyst for the pilot episode, after all, back when the core relationship was between Rick and Beth. Morty's relationship still means something to Rick, but not as much as making Rick feel good, and eventually the series will have to take that away.